Author : Navdeep Suri

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 07, 2020
As Dubai EXPO 2020 is postponed, a tough time for NRIs COVID-19 has claimed another major casualty. The announcement made on 31 March 2020 by Ms. Reem Al Hashimi, UAE’s dynamic Minister of State for International Cooperation and Director General of Dubai EXPO 2020, that the EXPO could be postponed by a year from its scheduled opening on 20 October 2020 was not entirely unexpected. It came in the wake of similar decisions to defer the Tokyo Olympics, the COP 26 and other major international events. But that was cold comfort for Dubai, which had billed the six-month long EXPO as the ‘greatest show on earth.’ The billing wasn’t far-fetched. As Burj Khalifa and other grandiose projects in Dubai have demonstrated, the ambition of the tiny Emirate is matched by its ability to hire the best talent and to accomplish the improbable. True to its theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’, the EXPO is building District 2020, spread over 4 million sq. meters, as the world’s first 5G-enabled township. Three spectacular pavilions named Opportunity, Sustainability and Mobility are almost ready to demonstrate some jaw-dropping innovations even as Al Wasl central plaza boasts the world’s largest 360-degree projection screen. The participation of 192 countries sets a new record, ranging from the major powers to the smallest Pacific island states including an Israeli pavilion, under its own flag, for the first time in the Gulf. Having defeated Istanbul and Moscow to secure the right to hold EXPO 2020, Dubai saw its US$ 10 billion investment as an opportunity to rebrand the emirate as a regional knowledge hub – a center for technology and innovation and a platform to incubate startups. The electronic countdown clock in the ever-expanding site office was ticking, a youthful multinational team seemed to be working round-the-clock, and everything appeared perfectly on schedule until the novel coronavirus struck. The timing couldn’t have been worse. It came at a time when Dubai’s real estate and trade driven economy has been going through an extended slowdown. And to make matters worse, it has coincided with a collapse in oil prices. This will have important repercussions, not just for Dubai but also for Indians in UAE. After all, UAE is India’s second-largest trading partner with a bilateral trade of over US $ 60 billion; an Indian diaspora of 3.42 million sends $ 17 billion in remittances; it is a major partner in our energy security; its sovereign wealth funds are big investors into India; and the political relationship between the two countries is exceptional. So, India has been an enthusiastic partner in the EXPO 2020 journey. The India Pavilion is coming up nicely on an extra-large one acre plot, prominently located adjacent to US and Japan and across from UAE’s own pavilion. A dedicated team from the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) has been working under the oversight of Minister for Commerce, Industry and Railways to work with India Inc and our states to put our best foot forward. But as construction projects slow down and sectors like retail, aviation and hospitality, maintenance and facilities management which employ tens of thousands of Indians come to a grinding halt, the flight of NRIs becomes an imminent possibility. This is likely to happen in waves, each bringing a different segment to India’s shores. The first to be affected are the blue collar workers. This group largely comprises of skilled and semi-skilled male workers in the 25-45 age group. They tend to remit their wages straight back to their families in India and have very little to fall back on when the work dries up. Once flights resume, they will be the first to start making their way back to their towns and villages. Their return to states like Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Punjab, combined with the abrupt stop to remittances, will add a worrying dimension to the problems of unemployment and collapsing incomes. The next lot will include white collar workers – the supervisors, managers and others. Many of them have their families and school-going children with them. The fact that UAE alone has 120 CBSE affiliated schools with over 100,000 Indian kids along with the associated ecosystem of teachers and other staff gives an idea of the scale of the problem. Any significant exodus from this category has a ripple effect on the entire economy. The other two categories are the professionals in senior management positions who are losing jobs as major companies downsize, and the trading and business community who struggle to survive in a bleak business environment. For reasons of tax and ease of doing business, they have made UAE their home. They have weathered the previous recessions and stayed put, except for the ones who saw no option but to flee when their businesses collapsed under the double whammy of unserviceable debt and an archaic bankruptcy law. Their presence in India, already a thorny issue in the bilateral relationship, could aggravate if more of them make their way back to the motherland. The situation in other Gulf countries isn’t much better. At a time when both the central government and state governments are fully engaged in dealing with the fallout of the coronavirus and preparing for its aftermath, they would do well to keep an eye on the evolving situation in Dubai in particular and the Gulf in general. Kerala is probably best-organized when it comes to looking after its expatriates but several others also have separate departments of NRI affairs. Once flights resume, they will have their work cut out.
(Author is a former Ambassador to UAE)
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